The Great Global Cleanup

Turning Trash Troubles into Eco-Empowerment

Amid the rapid urbanization and industrial expansion of our era, Solid Waste Management (SWM) emerges as a critical challenge. With booming populations and escalating consumption patterns, the amount of waste produced continues to increase, posing significant threats to our environment and to public health.

Solid waste refers to any type of garbage, trash, refuse, or discarded material. It can be categorized based on its sources, such as Healthcare Waste (HW), electronic waste, and  Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), which comprises everyday items we discard. Globally, the UN Environment Programme estimated that around 11.2 billion tons of solid waste is collected annually. In 2016 alone, humans generated 2.1 billion tons of MSW, and this number is expected to increase by 70% by 2050 to reach a total of 3.4 billion tons. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where total waste generation is growing faster than anywhere else in the world, the World Bank expects MSW to triple and double by 2050, respectively. This figure would account for 35% of the world’s waste overall.

SWM in the Global South

While SWM has become a pressing issue globally, its severity in the Global South warrants special consideration, as this hemisphere is often characterized by the frequent absence of formal waste management infrastructures. While upper-middle income countries collect an average of 85% of their waste, cities in lower-middle countries only collect 40 – 60 percent and properly dispose of only 5 – 30 percent, a figure that drops even lower in suburbs, where as little as 10% is collected, resulting in health and environmental crises. 

In addition to the problem of inadequate waste collection, the labor-intensive nature of waste management in these countries significantly increases health risks. Approximately 24 million people around the world engage in the informal sector of waste management, with a staggering 80% of them working as waste pickers. In Iloilo City, the Philippines, where some 170 tons of waste (about 50% of the total generated) are disposed of in an open dumpsite, approximately 300 households collect recyclable materials and sell them in local markets.

Aside from inadequate and informal waste collection, developing countries often resort to inappropriate practices for SWM due to their affordability. Dumps, landfills, and open burning serve as the general choices for solid waste disposal, despite their costs to human health and the environment. Urbanization in these countries is often fast and unplanned, forming low-income neighborhoods, slums, and other informal settlements. These settlements often lie outside of the cities’ service areas, which results in urgent demands for SWM. 

To meet this demand as expediently as possible, dump sites and open burning sites are often constructed in the vicinity of, or even within, the informal settlements in the name of convenience on the one hand and low transportation costs on the other. In Cambodia, in the capital city of Phnom Penh, where formal MSW management is minimal, households commonly burned, buried or dumped an alarming 361,000 tons of MSW in 2008 and 635,000 tons in 2015, which is approximately 58% of all solid waste generated by the city.

Health implications of informal SWM

Informal SWM practices pose significant health risks, particularly to low-income and marginalized communities in developing countries. Solid waste collection workers and waste pickers are at the forefront of these adverse health impacts. While workers in high-income countries are required to wear protective gear like masks, gloves, and boots, waste pickers in developing countries routinely touch the waste they collect and walk through it wearing only sandals. Their exposure to hazardous waste makes parasitic and enteric infections common, and viral infections like HIV also occur. 

Furthermore, the burial and burning of solid waste without proper treatment can create water, air, and soil pollution. Residents in informal settlements often face exposure to organic dust and unfiltered incineration particles through various environmental sources. These pollutants have compounding effects that drastically increase the risks of pulmonary infections, diarrhea, and even cancer. A study in Rome revealed that exposure to airborne contamination from landfills was positively associated with lung cancer mortality as well as with mortality and morbidity for respiratory diseases. One can expect an even clearer link in countries such as the Philippines and Cambodia, given the limited SWM facilities and mechanisms in the Global South. 

Policy challenges

The obstacles to effective SWM stem from the policy level. First of all, municipal governments everywhere simply pay little attention to informal settlements as they do not contribute to tax revenues, which suffer the most from a lack of public SWM services. Informal dumpsites and landfills are not officially recognized as part of the city, which creates gray areas devoid of regulations or controls. While these informal practices remove solid waste from immediate visibility, they also conceal the health problems associated with them.

Also, residents of the Global South have often come to accept informal SWM practices as part of daily life. Burying and burning garbage is seen as convenient, despite the pollution that results from these behaviors. For many residents, falling ill from environmental hazards has become an acceptable part of life. After all, if someone is struggling to make a living, they may lack the time and resources necessary to consider alternatives for solid waste disposal.

Empower change

Addressing SWM challenges in developing countries requires policy reforms and community engagement. Individual actions matter in driving impactful change for sustainable waste management. Join us in our Great Global Cleanup initiative by calling for a strong Global Plastic Treaty and by participating in global cleanup events!